[Illustration: “The carefully groomed and fastidious Murchison.”]
“Thank you very much,” said Miss Nugent, turning to the doctor.
“I’m sorry,” began Murchison, with an indignant glance at his rival.
“Oh, as you please,” said the girl, coldly. “Pray forgive me for asking you.”
“If you really wish it,” said the doctor, rising. Miss Nugent smiled upon him, and Hardy also gave him a smile of kindly encouragement, but this he ignored. He crossed the room and bade Mrs. Kingdom good-bye; and then in a few disjointed words asked Mrs. Kybird whether he could be of any assistance in seeing her home.
“I’m sure I’m much obliged to you,” said that lady, as she rose. “It don’t seem much use for me waiting for my future son-in-law. I wish you good afternoon, ma’am. I can understand now why Jack didn’t come.”
With this parting shot she quitted the room and, leaning on the doctor’s arm, sailed majestically down the path to the gate, every feather on her hat trembling in response to the excitement below.
“Good-natured of him,” said Hardy, glancing from the window, with a triumphant smile.
“Very,” said Miss Nugent, coldly, as she took a seat by her aunt. “What is the news to which you referred just now? Is it about my father?”
The two ladies received Mr. Hardy’s information with something akin to consternation, the idea of the autocrat of Equator Lodge as a stowaway on board the ship of his ancient enemy proving too serious for ordinary comment. Mrs. Kingdom’s usual expressions of surprise, “Well, I never did!” and “Good gracious alive!” died on her lips, and she sat gazing helpless and round-eyed at her niece.
“I wonder what he said,” she gasped, at last.
Miss Nugent, who was trying to imagine her father in his new role aboard the Conqueror, paid no heed. It was not a pleasant idea, and her eyes flashed with temper as she thought of it. Sooner or later the whole affair would be public property.
“I had an idea all along that he wasn’t in London,” murmured Mrs. Kingdom. “Fancy that Nathan Smith standing in Sam’s room telling us falsehoods like that! He never even blushed.”
“But you said that you kept picturing father walking about the streets of London, wrestling with his pride and trying to make up his mind to come home again,” said her niece, maliciously.
Mrs. Kingdom fidgeted, but before she could think of a satisfactory reply Bella came to the door and asked to speak to her for a moment. Profiting by her absence, Mr. Hardy leaned towards Miss Nugent, and in a low voice expressed his sorrow at the mishap to her father and his firm conviction that everything that could be thought of for that unfortunate mariner’s comfort would be done. “Our fathers will probably come back good friends,” he concluded. “There is nothing would give me more pleasure than that, and I think that we had better begin and set them a good example.”